Wednesday, March 1, 2017

The Relic of Perilous Falls by Raymond Arroyo


Rating: WARTY!

This was another audiobook I experimented with. It's read by the author, who sounds a bit like Phil Hartman, the American comedy actor who was shot by his mentally-ill girlfriend in 1998 while he was sleeping, and I can't say that the author does an absolutely disastrous job, but after listening to about an hour of this I soon found myself being irritated by his voice, particularly when he was doing this young female character, and making her sound like she was mentally deficient rather than just young. In principle, it's nice to have an author read their own work. That's the only way you can really tell how they meant it to sound, but in this case it was eventually annoying and not pleasant.

Will Wilder is a 12-year-old boy who deserves his last name. He's irresponsible and has way too much energy. In his defense, he's gifted, or plagued, with the ability to see otherworldly 'shade' creatures, and his stupidity ends up unleashing them. No wonder the town is called Perilous Falls. Now it's Will's job to fix things. So far so good, but this novel carried a quite heavy religious agenda - so it seemed to me, and I disliked the preachy tone. It's tied to the remains of the Saint Thomas, who supposedly had so little faith that he didn't believe Jesus had risen.

If you ask me he was the smartest of the twelve! The burial place is supposedly one of only three of the apostles: the Basilica in Rome, of Peter, the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Spain, of James, and the National Shrine of Thomas in Chennai, India, yet not a one of these can offer evidence that what they contain really is what they claim to contain. Will Wilder's village, though, supposedly has the very finger (among other body parts) that was plunged into the wound! This is what keeps the evil away. The skeleton came from Italy in World War Two. How it got there as opposed to being in India remains a mystery.

Not only does Will screw up and break his kid brother's arm, he also screws up further and steals the relic from the church, thereby removing the town's protection, and unleashing evil. Why all the evil is there, waiting to be loosed is yet another unanswered question. I never did get this demon thingy. And what's the deal with demons? There are none in the Bible - just angels, of which Lucifer is one.

Given that Thomas is supposedly buried in India, how this GI brought the relic home from Italy is a mystery which goes unexplained, but then I DNF'd this so maybe I missed something. Obviously the book isn't aimed at me, but I've enjoyed many such books which were not. I have no interest in pursuing a series like this, though, and I can't recommend it based on what I heard of it.


Two! by Tia Perkins


Rating: WORTHY!

While this book was adorable from the brief simple rhymes to the character illustrations featuring banana-fingers, a reviewer has to wonder about the advisability of subjecting a young, impressionable mind to mischievous and potentially problematic behaviors such as these! The book was so enjoyable though, that I'd advise parents to get this only after their child has exhibited most of the behaviors depicted here, to limit the risk of how many new ones they'll be able to learn from it! Alternately, maybe my diagnosis is wrong and it's aimed at parents, not young kids!

The 'terrible twos' are named that for a good reason. This is the age (give or take many months since it can begin any time from the first through the fourth birthday!) when children are starting to feel a certain independence from parents which will continue to grow and become increasingly necessary throughout their life. Couple that with a human's natural curiosity about everything, especially when that human is a child, and you have a recipe for, if not a disaster, then an extended period of trial and tribulation.

This is a time when they grow to hate hearing "No!" because they're starting to hear it so often, so maybe "No!" shouldn't be your knee-jerk reaction? Maybe a more roundabout way of employing dissuasion as well as a little less diligent policing (while still watching and keeping them safe, of course) won't turn them into hellions and will help improve relations? Obviously the more things you can find to distract them or keep them distracted, the less they will be inclined to pursue their own diversions, too.

The kid shown in this story is no different from the norm, climbing, hiding, sampling everything, running on hyper-drive, exhibiting vacillating and contradictory desires, and though it's a boy here, gender makes no difference either. Sugar and spice can be just as big of a tornado as snails and puppy-dog tails any day of the week. Sleep helps (yours and theirs!), so if you can get them down for at least half the day, with at least two hours during the day and the rest overnight, it might help.

The trick - although it can be a difficult one, is to appear calm and keep offering redirection. And remember it's not about you! It's about your progeny growing up. Even so, and with the best will in the world, kids will very effectively be kids and get up to the activities depicted here: getting into everything, climbing dangerously, picking everything up from the floor, putting everything picked-up into the mouth!

Kids are not endlessly resilient, but they are resilient and a bit of dirt here and there, even ingested, isn't going to harm them. Neither will small falls, since young bones are so pliable, and they do have to learn - somehow - that risky behaviors can be painful even if it's only a scraped knee! Of course that's not the same as letting them run riot! Curiosity can be helped with games, and even simple, home-made toys: paper bags, cardboard boxes, study plastic bottles with the lid removed or screwed very tightly on; soft toys, especially if they have zippers or pockets to explore, and so on. Even an old hoodie or a shoe (no laces!) will do for a distraction.

That's why I think this book will serve better as a retrospective; a trip down memory lane, congratulating your child on good lessons learned, and on how well they've grown, maybe how much they cried that time they didn't listen and got an injury, and how wise they've been to have avoided that since. A nice ego massage over how much their behavior has improved (even if you have to tell a stretcher here and there!) is wonderful. Positive reinforcement is always a bigger winner than negative - assuming you can even remember this when your last nerve frays!

On those grounds I recommend this as a worthy read and I'm now wondering whether this author plans on a "Three!" and a "Four!" and so on! What's going to be in the "Thirteen!", the "Twenty-One!", the Ninety-Four!"?!


Girl Undone by Marla Madison


Rating: WARTY!

Not to be confused with A Girl Undone by Catherine Linka, or Girl, Undone by Kendall Aimee Kennedy, or JJ Girl Undone by the amazingly-named Nicole Crankfield-Hamilton, this is volume three in a series of which I have read neither of the previous volumes, but it seems you do not have to have read those in order to make take-up this one. I was going to phrase that as 'make sense of this one', but decided that was being too generous!

The main characters are TJ Peacock, a security consultant (read private eye wannabe), and Lisa Rayburn, a clinical psychologist. Didn't like the first. Not interested in the second. They're hired by a woman who has a shady mob-related past, and whose niece was kidnapped for three-days and then let go, but who has no recollection of what happened. The only clues are the fact that she was dating an older guy, who then dumped her for his wife, claiming that they were reconciling, and a shady roommate who subsequently disappears.

In addition to this, there is a blogger who is being threatened apparently by a serial killer. Since he's had bad things to say about police competence, the detective who is assigned to his case is not all that enthusiastic about it. This detective is married to TJ. This was a pleasant surprise because it's unusual for a PI (which is what TJ obviously is, despite her career title) to have a relationship worth the name, but other than that, I wasn't moved by this story, and saw no reason to pursue a whole series.

It didn't begin well, with a kidnap victim showing up in a shopping a mall, yet no one thinks to check the security video? She's discovered and identified by a security consultant, who is evidently too stupid to think of doing basic detective work to see if anyone can be tied to this girl. She was wearing a hospital gown, and someone must have seen something out of place somewhere!, but TJ is too stupid to follow up, so the story started off lacking any credibility as a professional work. The problem as that it never improved.

It did pick up for me when I learned that a possible motive for the kidnapping was harvesting eggs, but that wasn't sufficient to turn it around, because it started going downhill after that, and the harvesting rationale was mundane and didn't make a whole heck of a lot of sense. I really didn't like these characters, not TJ, not Lisa very much, and not TJ's husband, nor did I find myself really caring about Kelsey, the kidnapped girl.

One issue was the derisory tone of the writing. I read irksome things like, "Her posture carried her tall frame with nearly military precision although there was nothing remotely masculine about her." Excuse me? You can't be feminine and in the military? What an awful thing for a female author to say about her gender!

It got worse. Later I read, "The man's voice hinted at homosexuality, with a soft lisp that almost sounded deliberate." What? This kind of thing really dropped me out of the story and made me not want to read any more. Note there's a difference between an author's character saying things like those: people are dicks at times, after all. Some people make a full time job of it, but when it's the author including these comments in the narrative, as was done here, then it's highly unlikely I'm going to ever be much of a fan of that author's writing.

Another oddball one was "The inside of the house definitely lacked a woman's touch," which is on oddly genderist thing to say whichever way you look at it: every home needs a woman? Not necessarily! Every home that has a woman ought to evidence a distinctly feminine touch? Again, no!

Some of the police procedural behavior here was laughable, too. I don't mind that, if the author's intent is to show a bad or sloppy cop, but this is TJ's husband investigating this crime, and I assume we're not supposed to consider that he's inept, but he is, and appallingly so.

There's a blogger in the story who is being harassed by someone who appears to be a serial killer. At one point, the killer breaks into the blogger's place when he's not home and steals a couple of his rare potted plants. The blogger discovers the killer left a note for him on his computer. It's never explained how the guy got past the blogger's password, but the problem here isn't so much that, as the fact that there's no talk whatsoever of the machine being fingerprinted! Yes, the intruder probably wore gloves, but here, with the keyboard, and elsewhere, with maybe a hair sample or something, was a chance to potentially get forensic evidence of a killer, and the cop is completely lackadaisical about it.

The killer was in that very room and may have left other evidence, but the cop doesn't care. Later, this same psycho sends the blogger an email, but nothing is done to follow up on it because, we're told, the email was sent from "... a big-box appliance store south of Milwaukee that sold electronics." This detective never once considers going to the store and looking at security video to see if they can identify the killer! Maybe there was no such video, but to not even consider pursuing the possibility is bad writing that makes cops look like idiots. Trust me, they're not. Well, okay, some are, but not a large number! This one, unfortunately, is, which makes him a joke that's not funny, and certainly not someone worth reading about.

The author is using this big-box store as an excuse to not be able to track the guy down via email, but stores don't simply let you use free email. The guy would have had to have accessed some email account in order to send the message, even if he was sending it from a random computer, yet there is no follow up on this, either! This struck me as appallingly bad writing, with the author so focused on pursuing this step-by-step plot she's worked out, that she either didn't care or never noticed that some of it made no logical sense.

All of this was by a only one third of the way through this, so it didn't feel at all promising, I pursued it a bit further, but finally lost patience and DNF'd it once I realized the egg harvest was no real mystery, the young girl was an idiot, and the identity of the serial killer was obvious to everyone except the people looking for the killer! Maybe I'm wrong on that score since I didn't finish the novel, but it seemed to me that for Bart, the blogger, the wolf was in the kitchen.

As I said, I'm usually bad about figuring these things out, so I probably am wrong, but the thing is at that point, I really didn't care who the killer was or what happened next. Life's too short for books that don't grab me by the entrails, and my reading list is long! I can't recommend this based on what I read.


Genesis by Bernard Beckett


Rating: WARTY!

This was another experimental audiobook read not badly, yet not inspiringly by Becky Wright in her first audiobook reading evidently. Bernard Beckett is a New Zealander who seems to think that because he shares a famous last name, he must have writing chops somewhere in his genome. Maybe he does, but it's not evident through the lens he lends us here with which to examine it. All we get is a poor reproduction of Orwell's 1984.

This story was amateur at the level of fan fiction. It was trite, boring, and framed in the mind-numbing tedium of student defending her thesis. The title is entirely wrong. Instead of Genesis, meaning 'beginning', the author should have gone with Akharith, meaning 'ending' because the main character, in her fruitless pursuit of academic excellence here, is about to meet her mocker.

As is all-too-often the case with this kind of story, we find ourselves in a dystopia which has no logical origin, and which is hilarious when you think about it, because this society is supposedly founded on Greek principles. Many of the characters, such as the main female character, have Greek names from antiquity. Hers is Anaximander, though she goes by Anax, and it really ought to be Anthrax, so diseased is her story.

The thesis-challenge idea is a good one, but it fails in this case because all it is, in the end (and the beginning and the middle) is nothing more than a massive info-dump, which is dull in the extreme, with vacuous, cardboard-thin characters and motivations, and a transparent and done-to-death plot. All it did was make me detest Anax and her hero, Adam, about whom her thesis was written. Their fates were just deserts, appropriate rewards for vacuity.

The predictably inaccurate blurb on Goodreads claims that Anax endures a "grueling all-day Examination" but it last only five hours, with lots of breaks, and most of it is spent watching endless, tedious holographic movies, about which she occasionally is asked a question. Grueling? No! All-day? No! Unless the day on her planet is about a quarter the length of ours! I think someone is greatly exaggerating for dramatic effect.

This tired business of reviewing the video record is nonsensical because it's so unrealistic, especially when done on television or in the movies, where the actors are clearly playing to the camera rather than realistically experiencing an event. It's just as bad here. At one point towards the end, the author has a character ask, "What good are stories?" and I say that's a valid question. If they're like this story, then the answer is: no good at all.

We're offered absolutely no rationale whatsoever (not that I consider worth its salt, anyway) for why this island society should drop everything else, and turn to Greek philosophy and principles, much less why everyone suddenly adopts Greek names. Nothing is that extreme, and no group of people are that uniformly conformist. It makes as little sense as the asinine 'five factions' in the execrable Divergent series, which, after a strong start, completely tanked at the box office thereby proving it had no legs outside the YA crowd, whose tastes, let's face it, are starved for clues far more often than they are a hunger game.

It makes a little more sense that the islanders are hostile to foreigners given that there's your trope deadly plague loose in the world, but even that makes zero sense in the grand scheme of things, and for them to be so inexcusably hostile to all foreigners is ridiculous.

A " brilliant novel of dazzling ingenuity"? I don't know what the writer of this blurb was on (a stipend maybe?), but I want some! The story is purported to examine what consciousness is, and what makes us human, but it really examines what stupidity is, and what a juvenile, whiney little brat Anax's hero is, and it can give us no answers.

This obsession of Anax's (with Adam Forde) is bullshit, and the fact that in a mindlessly ruthless society like this, he is apparently the only "rebel" yet gets cut so many breaks makes zero sense. If you want my opinion, then please don't waste your time on this bloated exercise in self-indulgence and pointless fawning over ancient Greek civilization. The only thing you'll find in ancient grease is ancient fries, and they're neither edible nor edifying! If you don't want my opinion, that's fine, but then why are you reading this?!


Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stephenson


Rating: WORTHY!

As was the wont back then, Robert Louis Stephenson began publishing his novel in serial form, at the beginning of the same month that the Earps and Doc Holiday were to confront the Cowboys over the latter's disregard for the city ordinance - a dispute that was resolved with ordnance, as are so many in this novel! It was published in book form about two years later.

All the well-known names are here: Jim Hawkins, Billy Bones, Long John Silver, Blind Pew, Black Dog, Israel Hands, Ben Gunn, and so on. All the stock phrases are here, too: swabs, lubbers, shiver me timbers, avast, and so on! This is the source-book for all things piratical, including the parrot on the shoulder and the peg-leg! It's also the source of some unintentional humor given how much phrases have changed in the century-and-a-quarter since Stephenson wrote this. "I'll lay you" and "I had my way with him" were never more misunderstood, but at least I discovered from whence the British term "quid" - meaning a pound (money) - originated!

This, the original pirate story, is told in six parts. I was fortunate enough to have it read to me by Alfred Molina, who does a damned fine job of it. I could have done without the pain-in-the-stern squeeze-box sea-shanty music! Why do audiobook publishers feel this insane compulsion to add irrelevant and trite music to the story? What an insult to the author! "Oh, your story lacks a little something! Let me punch it up with this irritating music! It'll keep your readers awake I'll lay! Have my way with them I will." That aside, it was one of the best narrated stories I've listened to, and it begins with the slightly mysterious Billy Bones, who is known as "The Captain" at the Admiral Benbow inn where Jim helps his mother, his father having very recently died.

Billy Bones is a secretive man, and it's only when he dies that Jim discovers that he was in possession of the feared Captain Flint's treasure map. Dr. Livesey, who had been treating The Captain, and the local district Squire Trelawny manage to get themselves a ship, the Hispaniola, and they go off questing for this treasure.

Somehow word got out about Billy Bones though, and both Black Dog and Blind Pew come looking for him. Just as Jim and his allies think they have escaped all that, they discover that pretty much their entire ship's crew is pirates, who signed on for the voyage under the leadership of the ship's cook, who is really a pirate himself - Long John Silver, who even Flint was reputed to fear. The odds are three to one against Jim and his associates. Long John Silver proves how ruthless she is on the island, and Jim manages to escape his clutches only to run into Ben Gunn, who had been three years stranded on the island. He throws his lot in with Jim in return for a cut of the treasure, and safe passage home.

Retreating to an old stockade built by Flint, Jim and his allies hold out against the pirates, and an attempt at parlay breaks down. Silver loses patience and promises an attack. The attack is repelled, but Jim goes off on an adventure of his own, leading to his cutting the stolen ship adrift which in turn leads to his confrontation with Hands. Returning proudly to the stockade to report his triumph in recapturing the ship, Jim is rather perturbed to discover he has now become the prisoner of Silver and five of the mutineers, who evidently have taken over the stockade while he was gone!

As if this wasn't twist enough, his friends and Silver are now apparently entreated with each other, and are going to recover the treasure together - but the treasure burial site is empty! Gunn has secreted it away. On the voyage home, they hire a new crew, and Silver escapes with a bag of gold forever. Given, as Jim says, there's still treasure on the island, you have to wonder if Silver didn't exploit his stolen treasure for a new ship and crew to go after what was left behind! This is a great story, the very bedrock of all pirate stories that followed, and I recommend it.


The Amazing Story of Quantum Mechanics by James Kakalios


Rating: WARTY!

Dishonestly subtitled " A Math-Free Exploration of the Science That Made Our World", this book was a disappointment. There is math in this - a lot of it - and it starts right there in chapter one. It isn't at all well explained. That was the biggest problem here. This author simply is not one who can competently and clearly explain complex science to the lay person.

I didn't come into this completely ignorant, but I left it with little learned, which is why this is a fail. I have read quite a lot on Quantum Mechanics, which doesn't make me an expert by any means, but I do understand some of the principles and ideas. This author but this guy did nothing to enlighten me any further. His constant footnotes were far more annoying than ever they were edifying, and his frequent references to obscure antique comic books did nothing to help his case along.

For me, Lawrence M. Krauss started all this in 1995, when he published The Physics of Star Trek which was well-written, entertaining, and educational. It spawned many imitators, few of which have been as well done as his was. I think Kakalios believed he could turn his own obsession with old comics into a similar work, but whereas Krauss actually did reference a cultural icon which is well-known, Kakalios simply appears to have indulged himself in his own personal passion, which has little, if any, relevance to anyone else.

This book was dense, humorless, and unenlightened, the illustrations unillustrative, the explanations obscure and meandering when they were not outright obfuscating, and the frequent comic book and fifties 'B' movie references irritating and distracting. I can't recommend this at all.


Friday, February 17, 2017

March On! The Day My Brother Martin Changed the World by Christine King Farris, London Ladd


Rating: WORTHY!

Illustrated by the curiously-named London Ladd, this memoir is aimed at children and was written by MLK's sister, who wasn't there at the Lincoln Memorial rally in Washington DC that day he made his dream speech, but who had traveled with him on many other trips.

That day, she was home taking care of their parents, but she watched the story on TV, and it's clear from her writing how proud she felt of her brother and how much she loved him. It's depressing to think how she must have felt that day he was shot. There is now a stone marker at the Lincoln memorial identifying the place from which he delivered the speech. It's tragic that two people, one white, one black, and who were so influential in freeing people from slavery should both have been murdered, and are now memorialized in different ways at the same location.

The author writes passionately and very descriptively, bringing the stories to life, and the memories powerfully to mind. I thought it sad that the text of the speech wasn't included here, though, but it's easily found online, at places such as The Martin Luther King, Jr Research and Education Institute, and it's also available on You Tube I recommend this book for young children, to teach them an important piece of history in a struggle that sadly is still forced to continue to this day.


Platypuses by Megan Borgert-Spaniol


Rating: WORTHY!

I don't know of anyone who doesn't love a platypus, although the critters can be dangerous. The have poison spikes on their back legs that can do you up a treat if they stick you with one, although if you have one raised from infancy, it seems that it's not inclined to spike you, because I've seen people on TV handle platypuses without harm.

This book is part of a big series (Blastoff! Readers: Animal Safari) on different animals, but this same author and judged from this one, it looks like this is a fun and educational series. despite being quite short, it's full of informative text (although not too much!) and a bunch of photos of cute-looking platypuses. I recommend it for any kid who is interested in learning about a specific animal. Whether you'd want to get the whole series is another issue! That would be some investment.


How to Catch the Tooth Fairy by Adam Wallace, Andy Elkerton


Rating: WORTHY!

Gorgeously illustrated by Andy Elkerton, this was a riotous book about a cocky and adventurous little tyke who people are evidently trying to catch to take all her quarters, but she gives no quarter! She's too smart for them and knows all their tricks. It also dispenses sneaky teeth health advice along the way.

Written in rhyme, we learn of this pink haired tooth fairy who collects an average of 300,000 teeth in a night. She wears old time aviator clothes and rides a toothbrush! And she's very fast. I can't predict whether your kid will like this or not, but I loved it!


Hollywood Homicide by Kellye Garett


Rating: WARTY!

Erratum:
"After what felt like a millennia" should read either "a millennium" or omit the 'a' altogether. Millennia is plural.
"No I couldn't take let you do that." is confused!

This is from an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

I'm really sorry to post a negative review on this one because it had some good qualities and I think this writer is one to watch, but for me, this novel simply didn't make the grade. In the interests of full disclosure, this is the start of an intended series, and I am not typically a fan of series, especially not detective series. This one intrigued me, and while it started out interestingly and had some fun characters and a sense of humor, it quickly went downhill as the main character demonstrated an increasing level of stupidity and ineptitude. I don't mind a main character who starts out dumb and wises-up as the story progresses, but when it goes the other way, it's not a good sign.

The problem is that this main character, Dayna is going way above and beyond her initial purview and we're never offered any valid reasons for this. I do get that this is what these amateur detective stories do, and it wouldn't be so bad if we were offered even a half-assed justification for it, but we don't get any here. Her motivation was supposed to be that her father is at grave risk of foreclosure. There's a reward of fifteen thousand dollars for information leading to the arrest of the hit and run driver who killed this girl named Hayley, so Dayna starts thinking about how she can get that money. So far so good. This is perfectly sensible and reasonable, but it neither explains nor validates some of the ridiculous things she does.

Dayna is a little slow on the uptake in realizing that they have the offending vehicle on video, but this is forgivable, given that she was out partying with friends that night and wasn't exactly sober. Once she acquired the video though, she just needed to pass it on to the police and she was done, but she doesn't do this. She doesn't have to become a private detective, yet she does take this on in her own very amateur and bumbling way.

The problem here is that she ends up breaking the law and getting in the way of the investigation rather than helping move it along, blundering into situations where she's very likely to tip-off potential suspects and have them skip town or go into hiding rather than having them end-up being successfully fingered for the crime. This is where Le Stupide set in with a vengeance and I found myself cringing rather than laughing or being excited by the story, and it's where I began to lose interest in this character.

Whenever Dayna gets some information, she routinely fails to pass it on to the police - the very people whom she hopes will facilitate this reward so she can help out her dad. The police get it at best second-hand if at all, and this betrays her, because it makes her look less interested in helping dad than it does in being a busybody and a rubbernecker. She insists on following-up evidence herself without passing it on, or she withholds it from the police because in her very amateur opinion, it's never enough.

Because of this, by about sixty percent through the novel she's pretty much a bigger criminal than the one she's trying to track down - at least in terms of how many laws she's breaking. At one point she and some friends discover a robbery has taken place, and rather than inform the police right away, these idiots go trampling all over the crime scene, destroying any clues that the police might have found to help them track down the thieves.

In short, Dayna is moronic. She obsesses over leaving her prints on a baseball cap she finds, yet spares not a single thought for the entire crime scene she just destroyed, evidence-wise. She's thoroughly incompetent, yet never once did she get chewed-out by the police who in reality would have had this clown arrested for interfering with a crime scene, or perverting the course of justice, which she does repeatedly.

At one point Dayna comes into possession of security video tape which positively identifies one of the house burglars who is linked to the hit and run, yet instead of just passing it on to the police and letting them do their job, she takes off on another tangent on her own, all the time lying to her best friends that she's not pursuing this on her own. It was never explained how it was that these relatively amateur thieves knew there were no alarms at this particular house - which was in a very swanky neighborhood where alarms and high-level security were the norm, not the exception, so this robbery made very little sense to begin with except as a poorly-staged venue for Dayna to get a clue. Which she never really does in any meaningful sense, quite frankly.

Dayna herself was not a likable person, and she looked ever more dumb as the story unfolded. It's not surprising that the murderer targets her (so we;re told. I remain unconvinced, but this was around eighty percent in, when I had honestly lost interest altogether. I DNF'd this at ninety or so when the story, instead of smartly winding-up, devolved into an endless ramble. The novel was about a third too long and moved too slowly.

At that point I was wishing the near-miss traffic accident had not missed her. The driver would have done LA a service by getting this inept fool out of the way of the real police work. There are intelligent ways to write your character into places and situation she should not be -ways that don't make her look like a major buttinsky, but this story seemed bent on going the dingbat route every time, making Dayna look far more like dumbbell than some belle detective. Because this kind of thing was the norm rather than the exception in this novel, in the final analysis, I can't recommend this book as a worthy read and I will definitely not be following this series.


Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Emily and the Strangers Vol 1 by Rob Reger, Mariah Huehner, Emily Ivie


Rating: WARTY!

I must have slept through the nineties because I had never heard of "Emily The Strange" until I saw this graphic novel in my ever-adored local library. It called to me, but now I'm left lamenting what else is out there that I might never happen upon.

Emily, as represented in this short graphic novel, is completely lovable, from her 'tude, to the way she's drawn and colored. She's a perfect mix of Goth and Steamed-punk. I love her positive, if aggressive, attitude, her never-defeatist approach to life, and her very inventive G-Rated cussing, which was hilarious.

From reading around (yeah, I'm a shameless book slut!) Rob Reger's friend Nathan Carrico designed Emily in 1991 for a skateboard company(!). Reger created the designs, and he and Matt Reed brought them into the fashion world on T-shirts featuring this girl and 4 black cats (one of which no doubt had a ring-tailed lemur tail). Those cats have bred, because there are many in this story, and they're exquisitely depicted. I don't know anything about Emily Ivie, the evidently very talented artist, but co-writer (with Reger) Mariah (that's mar-eye-uh, not mar-ee-uh) Huehner describes herself as a "big old geeky nerd who loves talking about stories and storytelling." She lied! Her face isn't old and her eyes are very young which is probably why she can get inside Emily The Strange's head so readily.

This volume combines the first three issues of the Emily (and) the Strange(rs) mini-series in which her idol Professa Kraken dies, and she has the chance to win his octopod-inspired guitar - which is also conveniently haunted by his spirit. The story here is that Emily strives to win the guitar, and just as she is convinced she missed her chance, fate (and cats) conspire to put her in front. The odd thing, which I really didn't get, is that even though she won it, there's a condition attached to it: that in order to keep it, she must win the battle of the bands, for which the anti-social (if not sociopathic) Emily must put together an actual band.

The story then moralizes somewhat about team-work and 'can't we all just get along', so for me it lost some momentum at that point, but it was still enjoyable. I'd dispute that this is a young-adult story! It felt much more like middle-grade to me, but it was fun. The other characters in the band were interesting. There was the guy who factored into Emily's success in the guitar contest; I don't know what his angle is and I wasn't too fond of him. He's a fan, if not a stalker of Emily's, and he rather creepily named himself Evan Stranger (Even Stranger), but other than his weird addiction to Emily, he isn't strange at all.

There was also Winston and Willow, who are fraternal twins, but otherwise complete opposites, and there is Raven, who is a girl-bot which was made and then lost track of by Emily, and who is now working in a vinyl, record store where Emily encounters her again. She fascinated me, but got very little air-time. This band doesn't work until the final member turns up, the very orange Trilogy, and then they're winners all the way.

Now I'm interested in Emily. I'd like to read the story of her creating Raven, and also about her earlier history. I recommend this one.


Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Elvis and the Underdogs by Jenny Lee


Rating: WARTY!

This was another audiobook experiment which failed! The story is about a rather sickly kid named Benji Wendell Barnsworth who is ten. He tells the story in first person, which is usually a problem for me at the best of times. It was not remotely helped in this case by the fact that a man with a rather croaky voice was reading this story. It. Simply. Did. Not. Work. The book was a DNF for me. Life is too short!

I can only conclude, from the number of trips we're told Benji makes to the hospital, that this mom is a world-class lousy mom. Or maybe it's the fact that the nurse at the hospital Dino, is practicing medicine without a license? This could account for at least some of those repeat visits.

These idiots think prescribing a therapy dog for Benji will cure him of his ills. He gets the president's puppy delivered by mistake and the president is such a bastard that he demands the dog be wrenched away from Benji, so the kid gets a different dog. This dog goes literally everywhere - including into the department store, and into the hospital. I somehow doubt that even a therapy dog would be allowed to get away with that, but who knows. Crazier things happen in this story.

Benji's two brothers, who happen to be twins, are complete dickheads and need to have their asses kicked (where's the trope school bully when you really need him?), but they get away with pretty much whatever they want to - due largely to the fact that mom is a lousy parent. It should be needless to say that I very quickly tired of this. even if it were not for the reader's annoying voice, the story was garbage. Maybe young kids will like it, but I don't really see how. I'm sure not about to recommend a children's story as flaccid and vacuous as this was.


Lady Mechanika Vol. 2: The Tablet of Destinies by Joe Benítez, MM Chen, Martin Montiel, Mike Garcia


Rating: WARTY!

This combines volumes one through six of the original comic books and was an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

In a beautifully wrought steam-punk world, the young daughter of a friend of Lady Mechanika's is in need of assistance, and the Lady responds. Her father has disappeared on a quest in Africa, and Mechanika sets out to find out what happened. Her quest is lent added urgency when the young girl is kidnapped. Mechanika meets a mysterious guy in London, who offers air transportation to Germany, where the kidnap victim is, and where lies another clue pointing to a specific site in Africa, so they set off there, only to crash in the desert and be taken prisoner by slavers!

Meanwhile in interleaved portions, we get the view from the other end of this quest, where the professor and his assistant are under pressure to decipher ancient scripts and uncover what the villains believe is an unprecedentedly powerful weapon.

The adventure was well-written, fast-moving, and full of action and feisty characters, including the distressed young girl at the start. The artwork was beautifully done and colored. That alone would have been sufficient for me to rate this graphic novel as a worthy read, but what bothered me too much here was what I let slip by in volume one, and it was the sexualization of all the female characters. When the blurb says, "Lady Mechanika immediately drops everything" it really means her clothes, and for me, this is what brought this particular volume down.

I found it disturbing, because Mechanika is fine regardless of her physical appeal or lack of same! She doesn't need to be rendered in endlessly sexual ways to be an impressive character. It's sad that graphic novel creators seem so completely ignorant of this fact. It's like they have this phobia that their female characters are going to be useless and entirely unappealing unless their sexuality is exploited. I'm not sure if this failing says more about the creators or about their readership, but either way it's obnoxious and I sincerely wish they had more faith in women than they evidently do. Do we really want to be writing comics which only appeal to people who see women as sex objects and very little else? Do we really want to be perpetuating a message as clueless as it is antiquated, and which offers only the sleazy equation that girls = sex = girls? I hope not.

This abuse was bordering on being abused in the first volume, but it was nowhere near as rife as it was here, so why they went full metal lack-it in this one is a mystery. Unlike in the first volume, it was all-pervasive here, with full-page in-your-face images of scantily clad adventurers bursting at what few seams they had, entirely impractically dressed for their quest.

I guess I should be grateful that the African woman who joined Lady Mechanika wasn't bare-breasted, but what I most noticed about Akina (other than the fact that she at least had a Congolese name) was that she looked like your typically white-washed model from Ebony magazine, not like the Congolese woman she supposedly was, whose skin would have been darker, and her face broader and less Nordic-nosed-white-westerner than this woman's was.

Why are comic book artists so afraid of showing the real world? Do they think real Congolese women are unappealing? Or is it that they feel they cannot sell the sexuality of a black woman (as opposed to a pale brown one)? If this medium is to grow-up and maintain relevance and meaning, then this kind of bias needs to be dispensed with urgently, because it's bone-headed at best, and racist at worst.

So, despite the appeal of the art in general, and the entertainment value of the story, I can't condone these practices, and I cannot rate positively a graphic novel which is so brazenly perpetrating abuses like this one did.


Lady Mechanika, Vol.1: the Mystery of Mechanical Corpse by Joe Benítez, Peter Steigerwald


Rating: WORTHY!

This gathers volumes 1 through five of the single comic books and was an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

I had a better experience with this one than I did with the second volume of the series, which I requested at the same time as this. The steam-punk world is rendered and colored beautifully, and the story was an intriguing and entertaining one, well told. Lady Mechanika is a cyborg - inasmuch as such things went in Edwardian times. I am by no means a fashion expert, not even in modern times, so I may have this wrong, but the styles didn't look Victorian to me, notwithstanding what the blurb says. That's not a problem, just an observation. I rather liked them as it happens. Joe Benítez and Peter Steigerwald could probably make a living as fashion designers if they ever tire of comic books!

Lady Mechanika is quite evidently someone's creation, but her memory is impaired, so her origins are as much of a mystery to her as they are to us. I am wondering if the guy she meets in volume two (reviewed separately) might have some knowledge of that, but it remains a mystery in that volume, too! Her mechanical parts are her limbs, and her 'title' was given to her by the tabloids. Her backstory isn't delivered here or in volume two, so we don't know how she came to be a private investigator and adventurer. I was interested in this story because of the upcoming (as of this writing) live-action remake of the Ghost in the Shell movie, which is a favorite of mine. I'm looking forward to the new one.

When the story opens, the Lady meets the 'Demon of Satan's Alley' which appears to be some sort of a human animal hybrid and which isn't a demon but which has been demonized by the public. Some crazy guys blunder in and kill it before Lady Mechanika can talk to it enough to maybe find out what it knows of its past - and maybe of hers, too. She's not best pleased by that. Soon she's off adventuring and trying to track down this creator of mechanical melanges. In this regard, the story has some resemblances to Ghost in the Shell, including the overt and unnecessary sexuality.

There were some technical issues with this as there are with all graphic novels which have not yet clued themselves in to the electronic age. In BlueFire Reader, which is what I use on the iPad, the pages are frequently enlarging themselves to fill the screen which means a portion of the page is curt off, since the iPad screen and the comic book page size are out of whack compared with each other, the comic book being a little too 'tall and slim' for the 'stouter' table format.

This is something I can work with, but whenever there's a double-page spread, it means turning the tablet from portrait view to landscape and back again for the next page. This isn't such a hassle except that the tablet is self-orienting, so the page is constantly swinging around like a loose yard-arm on a boat at sea.

One image was a portrait-oriented double-page spread, and it was so set-up that I could not orient this to view it since the image always swung to the wrong orientation no matter what i did! The only way to actually see it as intended by the creators was to orient it as a landscape, then carefully lay the pad flat and rotate it while it stayed flat; then the image was view-able in all its glory, but this only served to highlight one other problem - the minuscule text. It's far too small for comfortable reading. I know comics are all about imagery, but for me, unless there's also a decent story, all you really have, is a pretty coffee-table art book. It seems to me that artists and writers might consider collaborating a bit more closely on legibility!

This is going to become increasingly a problem as the old school comic fraternity struggles to repel all technology boarders. Personally, I prefer e-format to print format as a general rule, if only because it's kinder to trees, which are precious. The sentiment is especially poignant when we read horror stories to the effect that 80,000 copies of Jonathan Franzen's novel Freedom had to be pulped because of typos. At 3 kg of carbon emissions per book, that's not a charmed system. You would need to read a hundred books for every one print book to balance the manufacturing pollution of an e-reader against that of the print version, but then your ebook comes over the wire at very little cost to the environment, whereas the print book has to be transported to you, even if only home from the store in your car.

But you can also argue the other side, which is that reading devices employ petrochemical products, and precious and toxic metals, and probably contains 'conflict' minerals which were mined in the Congo (curious given the location for volume two in this series!); however, you can argue that a multi-use device, such as a tablet or a smart phone, can be employed as an ebook reader without contributing to even more environmental carnage than it might already have caused. On the other page, you can also argue that a book never needs upgrading (as countless young-adult Jane Austen rip-offs have conclusively proven), will last for years, and can be recycled when done with. So you pays your greenbacks and you hopes you get the green back.

For this volume, I think it worth reading in any format, and I recommend it if you can overlook the sexploitation which is relatively restrained in this volume.


Sunday, February 12, 2017

Wraithborn Redux by Marcia Chen, Joe Benitez, Joe Weems, Victor Llamas, Studio F, Mike Garcia


Rating: WARTY!

Note that this is from an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

I should have paid more attention to the 'redux' portion of this title! It makes me wonder what went wrong with the first one that necessitated this one. For me, this one failed also, and there were multiple reasons for it. One was that it offered nothing new, and brought nothing original to this genre's table. Worse than this, we have a supposedly heroic female main character who is always in need of rescue. It was pretty sad.

Add to that the absurd over-sexualization of every single female character who appeared in this story - except of course the designated "Fat One" who actually only looked 'fat' because all other females in the story were anorexic everywhere except for their breasts. There was school-bullying running rife with no teachers in sight. There were trope cliques and not a single thing that was fresh or refreshing to read. Overall, it was a decidedly pathetic effort at redux-ing trope and cliché. And that was just the school. The demons and those which controlled them were no better and no more inventive.

Just how many warmed-over tropes were there here? Almost too many to count. We have the designated hero raised and trained by eastern monks. There was a twist to this: that the untrained unsuspecting girl gets the power he was trained for, and this is what attracted me to this story, but even that twist was a fail in the final analysis because this girl was so clueless and so helpless. Even when she began to warm up to her role, she was still completely lackluster and unappealing.

In her we had the semi-orphaned nondescript girl who's a nervous wreck, and who's bullied by cheerleaders! Seriously? Who can't kick a cheerleader's ass?! This girl, Melanie, has your standard quirky, supportive friend. There's a red under the bed (literally red-haired here), and demon dogs which came straight out of the Alien movie series. They were not the only movie rip-off. Kalin, the guy who was supposed to be the wraithborn dude, is a rip-off of Kylo Ren, right down to the first initial, the sword, the black robes, and the ridiculous and totally unnecessary face mask. Seriously?

These morons fight with swords when a machine gun would have done a better job on the Alien dogs in a tenth of the time. What the hell is wrong with these writers and artists? Sword-fighting dudes and pneumatic females? Please! Get a life! Get a clue. Come up with something truly original. Then you won't have to wonder why your comic isn't selling. This one was crap and I certainly do not recommend it. In fact it's comic books like this that make me think it's worth petitioning not for a maturity rating aimed at those who read the comic, but a maturity rating for those who write and illustrate the thing so I get some advance warning of what I'm getting into.


Little Tails in the Savannah by Frédéric Brrémaud, Federico Bertolucci


Rating: WORTHY!

Note that this is from an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

I'd been a fan of the Brrémaud/Bertolucci graphic novel series titled 'Love', a text-free set of stories about life in the wild. For me that series went downhill, the stories no longer interesting, and even the art suffering, so I gave up on it. I gave the first in the Little Tails (not Tales!) series a try and I thought this was much better. Aimed at young children, adventurous and educational, this is a colorful series for young children that's worth the reading time.

Chipper and Squizzo are two little animal characters who take trips in their cardboard box airplane (something young children can readily emulate with any old cardboard box you have lying around). This part of the story is line drawings with a splash of monochrome color; it's refreshingly simple and will probably appeal to young readers, especially when its contrasted against the gorgeous full color images of the various animals they encounter.

The animals featured are biased toward mammals, and largely situated on land (we humans are a very class conscious society aren't we, even when it comes down to biological classes!), but there is the occasional foray into non-mammalian characters. Unfortunately the snake is described as poisonous when it ought to be described as venomous (you can withstand eating a snake because it's not poisonous, but you definitely don't want to be bitten by a venomous one!). Outside of the mammals, we get one beetle, two different birds, and two different reptiles, and that's it! There's nothing about plant life at all. I'd like to see that change. Since it's an airplane they have, why not a book on birds? Or how about a cardboard submarine next time, so we get to visit some ocean life?

Overall, though, the series is engaging and attractive, so I recommend this as a worthy read for young children.


Saturday, February 11, 2017

Paprika by Yasutaka Tsutsui


Rating: WARTY!

I can't give you a full review of this one because I grew tired of it so quickly and simply didn't want to read on when I have so many other books calling to me. I read about a tenth of it and I simply couldn't get interested in it. It moved so slowly and was so self-obsessed that it was tedious to read.

The basic plot is that psychiatrists are using a new device to invade dreams to try to help people with mental issues, but are being overtaken by the dreams and driven insane. Well yeah, since dreams are essentially meaningless drivel, it would be a nightmare for even the dreamer to try to unravel them - assuming that's even possible - let alone some stranger try to figure out what it means, so the premise wasn't exactly a charmed one and in the end, it just didn't appeal to me at all.


Friday, February 10, 2017

Keeping Score by Linda Sue Park


Rating: WARTY!

I liked Linda Sue Park's The Kite Fighters which I positively reviewed back in February 2015, but I cannot say the same for this one. If you are a fanatical, dyed-in-the-wool, psychotically passionate baseball fan, and you like middle-grade novels, then this might be the perfect entertainment vehicle for you, but for me, quite frankly, I'd have rather spent the time watching the little dot fade in the center of one of those old cathode ray tube TVs when you turn it off, than have endured this.

I had thought it might be quirky, or funny, or give an endearingly-skewed take on baseball from a young girl's PoV, but it offered quite literally none of that. Instead, it offered nothing but endless discussion of baseball players, and baseball games, and baseball stats. It was all baseball all the time and it was not as boring as hell - it was far more boring than all hell. Wporse than this, it was trite as all hell with the pathetic little story tacked on the end about some wartime tragedy. I mean seriously? Pathetic. I'm also done with Linda Sue Park. I can't voluntarily read any more stories written by an author who would stoop to writing such trashy pablum as this, I really can't. Stick a frigging Newbery in it. It's done.


The Star Thief by Lindsey Becker


Rating: WORTHY!

Erratum:
"The Mapmaker took in and impatient breath." - presumably should be "an impatient breath"

This was an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher and author.

Don't be misled by the resemblance of this middle grade novel's title to The Lightning Thief. I'm not a fan of the Riordan series, but this is as different as you can get, and this author had me at the very first sentence, which is what all we writers should strive for, but few achieve! That first line read, "Honorine realized it was going to be a difficult night when she stepped into the east parlor to do a bit of light dusting and found it on fire." That struck me as hilarious and an awesome start. It's like she knew exactly how to begin this to bring me on board!

The book continued to impress as I read on. It's an easy and fast read which hits the ground running and never stops. It's something of a steam-punk fantasy for kids, and has the interesting premise that the constellations are really mystical animals who have powers, and with whom regular people can interact. There are also rather evil creatures in this story too, so in some ways it's like reading about angels and demons.

Honorine is a young housemaid who works for the wealthy Lord Vidalia who has disappeared. She's also something of an inventor. When odd events get going in the manor that night, starting with the fire and progressing to curious discoveries Honorine makes, and then to visits from two different factions on the same wild night, both of which claim that the other guys are the bad guys, Honorine has to choose who to trust. But she's torn. At first, she sides with the group which has her childhood friend and young lord of the manor, Francis, working with them. She had thought he was away at school. After this she gets to spend some time with the Mordant, which is what these constellations are called.

There are few mordant on their magical 'ship' and the reason is that there's a battle going on between two sides, one of which is trying to capture all the Mordant, and the other of which is trying to prevent that. Maybe both sides were bad! Yes, it was exciting, adventurous, action-packed and confusing, and my hope was that the author had it in her to keep up the pace. It turns out she did. There is never a spare moment, and always something new to find.

Like a seasoned professional, the author keeps on peeling back layers and just as you think you have a good handle on things, another layer strips away and reveals a deeper understanding. Honorine is thrown into the middle of this turmoil, and is constantly trying to determine who is right and who is wrong, what's really going on, and where she fits in. In the end, this strong young female figure takes things into her own capable hands, because she knows, ultimately that she's actually the only one she can trust to do the right thing.

I loved the story, the plot, and the characters, all of them, but especially Honorine, who is a true hero and a great role model. I recommend this book without reservation.


Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly


Rating: WARTY!

I found this best seller to be very disappointing. I listened to the audio-book version which lacked a little something in enthusiasm, but otherwise wasn't too bad of a listen in terms of the reader's voice. The problem was much more with the material, and it got me thinking about what people would be looking for when they pulled this off the shelf at the book store or the library, and whether they would be as disappointed in it as I was. For me, I was looking for what promised to be an interesting and shamefully belated story of the contribution of black women to the US space program. Waht OI got was a rambling family history written by a relative which was more focused on rehashing the shameful black history of the US rather than telling the story of these women.

Though the Russians put a woman into space in 1963 (Valentina Tereshkova), it was really more of a showboat than a space flight, aimed at furthering the embarrassment the Americans, who were continually playing catch-up back then, than ever it was a serious effort to integrate women into the space program. The Americans to their shame, took twenty years to set this right, and it wasn't until a year after the Russians had put a second woman into space, Svetlana Savitskaya.

Sally Ride was a physicist and went into space aboard the shuttle in 1983. It took the bulk of another decade before the first black woman went into space: Mae Jemison, who is an engineer and a physician and went up in 1992, which was a decade after the first black male astronaut, Guion Bluford, had gone up there. Everyone knows Armstrong and Aldrin. They may even know names like Gagarin and Glenn, but few know the names of Bluford and Jemison. No one even remembers the second two men on the Moon (it was Charles Conrad and Alan Bean), so why would they ever hear about black women who helped make it possible for early astronauts to get into space and return safely?

Of course we typically don't hear of the back-room people in these adventures, so this isn't quite as bad as it's painted, but what makes it worse is that white people tend to think that all of those 'unsung heroes' are also white, and so do far too many black people. It's a bad habit that shamefully overdue for correction, so it's a good thing to learn that no, they're not all white! A good many of them are black (and Asians and Hispanics too, for that matter). I just wish the three depicted in this book: Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Dorothy Vaughan, had a better memorial.

The book covers a range of topics and many people, but is primarily about those three women who succeeded despite having to contend with the appalling discrimination which had become so embedded in the nation's psyche so much that it was actually considered normal back then, and in some minds, is still viewed that way today. But let's not mention any recent presidents.

The problem I had is that the book is so intent upon laying the scene that the main characters tend to get subsumed into the scenery, which in my opinion does them a dire disservice. The discerning listener can pick out their dark threads which have been in the dark for far too long before now, finally, being brought into the light, as they run through the story and intertwine, along with other characters, such as the rebellious Miriam Mann, who quietly removed the 'coloreds' sign from the cafeteria table every time a new one appeared until whoever was putting it there finally gave up. A small victory but an important one.

So while I believe books of this nature are important ones, I have to caution potential readers about this one. You should consider what it is you're looking for before you plump for this volume. If it's a book version of the movie you just saw, then this isn't it. This is much longer, and more detailed and in considerably more depth than Hollywood ever likes to go, and more than you (or I) might be prepared for. If you're looking for black abuses revisited, then this will work for you, but if you've been there and done that, and are looking for something a bit different this time like a good real life story that gets under the personal skin of the black female experience, this one might leave you as dissatisfied as it did me.

Hollywood likes it short and snappy, perky and preferably controversial, but shallow and easy and that has its place, but this isn't any of that apart from the controversial bit), and it rambles endlessly and digresses mercilessly, and offers all kinds of details you may not care about or be interested in (such as soap-box derbies).

It doesn't even get to the NASA bit until two-thirds the way through, and then it's a long stretch of John Glenn, a huge leap from there to the Apollo program and the Apollo 1 disaster (from which NASA learned nothing if we're to judge from the subsequent Challenger and Columbia disasters which together robbed us of more than four times as many astronauts as the Apollo One fire did), and then a quick skip to the moon landing and we're done. I confess I skipped tracks increasingly as I plowed through this as the bits that interested me became ever more scarce, but I did want to tackle this before I took on the easy, sugar-coated, and simplified version of the movie. I haven't seen that yet, but even unseen, I'd recommend the movie over this for most people.


Wednesday, February 8, 2017

A Corner of the Universe by Ann M Martin


Rating: WARTY!

When I picked this off the shelf at the library, I didn't realize it was a Newbery Honor book. Had I done so, I would have put it right back on the shelf, but I missed the little sticker in the corner, focusing instead on the back cover blurb. 'Newbery' is synonymous with 'tedious drivel' in my experience, and this one was no different. The books ought to carry large, bright, garishly-colored neon warning stickers.

It was another audiobook experiment I tried, and we didn't get along with very well. The story is about this eleven-year-old Hattie, who discovers she has an uncle, Adam. Adam has been confined to a psychiatric institution for schizophrenia and autism, and is now coming home to roost, because the place is being closed down. No one has ever mentioned him to Hattie. The two of them get along like a house on fire.

My problems with this book were two-fold. Most of the text consists of Hattie talking about her life, which has to be the most mind-numbingly boring life ever lived by anyone, anywhere. It was an awful listening experience having her endlessly rambling about who did what and where, with nothing she said being in any way remotely out of the ordinary. I couldn't stand this pretty much from the off. It was tedious listening.

The other problem, and the bigger one I feel, is the reader of the book. The main character is telling this story in the worst of voices for a novel: first person, yet the book is being read by Judith Ivey, who was in her fifties when she recorded this. Hattie is eleven. I'm sorry, but it just doesn't work. It was entirely wrong, and made the book into a joke for me, having this mature woman speak for an eleven-year-old girl. I cannot recommend this one at all.


Tuesday, February 7, 2017

The Happiest Kids in the World by Rina Mae Acosta, Michele Hutchison


Rating: WARTY!

I requested this book because I thought it would be interesting, and in some ways it was, but I evidently expected too much from it because it failed to make a case for me. It's sad, because I felt like I shared some common ground with the authors. I've never been to Holland, but I grew up in England and went to school there, and now I'm seeing my own kids through school in the US, so I share two of the three perspectives presented here, but I have to say that the picture painted by the authors felt narrow, very biased, and worse than this, there was really nothing offered to suggest how a nation which might want to emulate the Dutch could get from here to there.

The fact that we call them Dutch, and they call themselves Nederlanders, and we call the nation Holland is an interesting mix of etymology which has deep roots. The word 'dutch' just means people, and there were mountain dutch and lowland dutch, but the ones we now call Dutch go stuck with the abbreviated version of that title. Holland was just one part of a group of people who settled together into one nation, and the rest of them got stuck with that name! Nothing to do with the book, but just in passing....

I'm open to the notion that the Dutch can teach us some things, but I was neither convinced that they have a world-beating handle on things by this book, nor that what was presented here offered was anything more than what intelligent and common-sense parents are doing anyway. In this regard it was rather insulting because the authors seemed intent upon translating a lot of personal perceptions into a generalized diagnosis of, and prescription for everyone, so that all Dutch were painted the same color - and a very bright one, whereas all Brits and all Americans were each panted their own dull and muddy shade of grey. This struck me as entirely unfair.

In 2013, a Unicef report rated Dutch children as the happiest in the world, so something seems to be working there. Two writers, a Brit named Michele Hutchison who moved to the Netherlands in 2004 with her Dutch husband, and an American, Rina Mae Acosta who is also married to a Dutch guy, are raising their kids in Amsterdam and they explored why it is that Dutch children are so happy. This book is the result. In that same survey, Britain ranked 16th and the USA ranked 26th, which was just above the three poorest countries in the survey, so I can't help, but ask why that is. Why did the Dutch do so well, and the Americans and Brits so poorly? or is it not quite so black and white as is portrayed here?

While I initially felt that I might like this book, and rate it positively and encourage others to read it, the more I read of it, the more disillusioned I became. It is truly important to widen our perspective when it comes to how we live our lives, and in particular, how we relate to and raise our children, but I had serious qualms about the validity of the conclusions the authors were drawing.

The first of and most obvious of these is that the Unicef report was only one survey, and a recent one, so I have to say I'm skeptical about basing any long-range planning on a single narrow study. The study did cover five dimensions: material well-being, health and safety, education, behavior and risks, and housing and environment, but the idea that the Dutch do it best is based on that single snapshot. I'd have to ask: were Dutch kids also the happiest five, ten, fifty years before? If so, then we have something to build on, if not, then what's changed and how reliable is it? We don't know from what we're told here, and that question isn't asked in this book.

There was one part of this book which related how the principal of a school, who liked to greet each child as they came in through the door, mentioned that this was not always the way it was done: kids came piling in chaotically when she first arrived. This is a change she has made herself to this one school. There was no mention of whether this same polite, stress-free organization existed in other schools or whether it was just this one principal's peccadillo. To me this was a failing, and it was one which ran like a thread through the book. There is no grand plan here or any deep survey, just a lot of anecdote and opinion. It's not something I'd want to base my kids' futures on.

This book does cover raising children from conception through schooling, so in that regard, it's comprehensive, but the authors haven't finished putting their kids through high school, and since this is based so much on personal experience, that end of things was a bit bare; however, it was at the beginning of that path of life where I encountered another instance of confusion or conflation. At one point early in the book the authors praise the Dutch for their having babies at home as opposed to in the delivery ward of the nearest hospital, but later we learn that only 25% of Dutch mothers-to-be actually do this.

Now that's higher than in other countries, but I'm unclear what the point was that the authors were trying to make here. If the number of moms (even though it's relatively large) is still in the minority, can we make any valid claim that this materially contributes to anything beyond the personal, much less to kids being happy?

This was further confused later when I read of moms in the US and Britain, who do give birth in hospital, being kicked out after a very short stay. This was mentioned like it was a problem, but If the idea is to have a safe birth and then get mom home as soon as is practicable, how is this problematical as compared with those quarter of Dutch moms who stay home for the birth? I didn't get the point of those portions of the book which were like this.

What bothered me is that the authors clearly are starting out with the conclusion that the Dutch do it better than anyone and the Brits and the Americans do it badly by comparison, yet we never get any questioning of whether this is really true on a widespread basis. The odd survey will only tell you so much, yet the Dutch get endless praise here to the point of it being tedious and irritating. Frankly this praise felt like fan-girling. We never got an unbiased perspective with the same kind of detail on how things are done elsewhere, except for frequent and very negative sniping which was as unfair as it was inaccurate.

Worse than this, we tend to get a lot of personal anecdote from one or other author including a three-page-and-a-half spread about the high-school experiences of one of the authors. While it's sad that anyone should have to go through what she did, the fact remains that it's her personal subjective experience. So far so good, but the thing is that after a revelation like this one, the authors generalize and talk as though their own personal experiences, interviews and opinion apply to everyone equally!

No, they don't. My school experience in Britain was far removed from hers, and my kids' experiences are likewise far removed from the ones depicted here as being representative of the USA. You cannot generalize from the personal or blandly take your own experience and treat it like it speaks for everyone. It was things like this which made me quickly lose all faith in this book's message, turning me from a potential convert to an adverse critic.

The vista over which this book looks is disturbingly narrow. We get a lot of author opinion, and we get second-hand interviews and comments made by Dutch women, but for a book about children's happiness, we get precious little from the kids. We don't get a significant number of kids views, and the few we do get are anecdotal Dutch ones. We almost never hear from other kids in other countries, and the authors make no effort to try to seek out views which might actually oppose theirs, to give some balance to the presentation.

It's this lack of adequate comparison with other countries in a quantifiable way which lets the book down. We hear a lot of opinion, but precious little to back it up. One thing that's mentioned, for example, is suicides in Silicon valley, but if we look national suicide rates in Wikipedia, the Dutch do not come out best! A lot of Middle-East countries are lowest, with the Dutch appear halfway down the list, beating US citizens, but not doing as well as the British. It seems to me if the kids are extraordinarily happy here, this certainly doesn't seem to permeate into adulthood, and the authors never address this or ask why. They simply keeping on pointing to the shiny Dutch way and praising the bright colors of the Dutch lifestyle, conveniently ignoring the fact that it's a rather thin veneer of paint in many places.

One of the odd things which are praised is how tall Dutch men and women are. This point was made over a dozen times in one way or another, but I fail to see how it relates to happy children, unless being happy somehow magically makes a person taller! Dutch men average the tallest in the world at five feet eleven inches in the survey I read, although the authors cite one which quotes them at six feet one inch. Dutch women came second to Latvian women for tallest, but the fact is that eight other nations in the survey I saw were within two centimeters of the Dutch, so I kept asking, "What's your point?" I still don't know! Nor do I know how tall the authors are, talking of perspective. If they're relatively short, then perhaps the Dutch men did seem particularly tall and this is why they kept returning to this. Again, it felt like fan-girling. Other than that I have no explanation for the repeated references to it!

This was one of a many digressions which took us away from the main topic (if we assume from the book title that the main topic is childhood happiness). It's for this and related reasons that I have questions about the approach this book took. If we put aside the Unicef survey for a minute, the entire rest of the book consisted of observations and some interviewing, but there was really nothing offered to support a causal relation between A and B - it was simply assumed.

At one point, for example, the book began talking about biking adding six months to life expectancy. It rambled on about how the Dutch have taken to bikes and how children learn to bike independently to school at an early age, and while I can see that this contributes to children gaining confidence, I don't see how it's any different from other activities pursued by children in other countries which contribute equally to child welfare and confidence. It was just tossed in under the untenable and unsupported assumption that this very Dutch activity was quite different from anything any other nation does and therefore must somehow contribute to this unique Dutch happiness!

The most amusing thing to me about this whole story of children biking to school was that the author complained of how busy the bike lanes were, yet the school was only a half mile away! Why were the children not walking, and getting their exercise and building their confidence that way? It was one more confusing episode that made no sense at all.

Meanwhile, the dangers of cycling were swept under the rug. A report discussed at DutchNews.nl (April 2016) shows that 25% of those who die in a road accident in the Netherlands are cyclists, compared with a European average of 8%. Denmark and Hungary are next on the unsafe cycling list; in both countries, 16% of the people who die in road accidents are cyclists, so to pretend there is no problem with cycling safety or that dangers are low and controlled is simply dishonest.

With regard to child mortality, it's the same in the Netherlands as it is in the U.K., with the US being about twice that. other numbers do not put the Netherlands out there as a shining and unique exemplar. This is not to run the Dutch down but to put things into a perspective which the authors of this book seemed somewhat loathe to embrace in their gushing prose. There's a report online which numbers 2,375 children as victims of human trafficking in the EU in 2013 and 2014, and most come from Bulgaria, Hungary, the Netherlands, Poland, and Romania. This did not fill me with confidence that the Dutch system is so much better or safer. These are just a couple of examples which I found quickly and which are glossed over or ignored here.

I'd have been a lot happier if their survey of childhood happiness had gone wider and crossed a greater range of social classes. This is why I had questions about whether the authors of this book are correctly diagnosing the situation. Perhaps they are. Perhaps everything they have discussed is measurably a contributor to their conclusion and explains why Dutch children are happier, but I never felt convinced of it by what I read. It was all too loosely wrapped, too rambling, too repetitive and disorganized.

The authors offer a lot of suggestions, but nowhere was there any discussion about whether or not other parents in other countries were already doing these things despite not being Dutch, or whether it was even practical to advocate 'the Dutch way' when so much of it is inextricably tied to Dutch culture and Dutch laws, and government and national attitudes. You can't simply move those things to another country, and even if you could, you can't expect them to work as they do at home. Also conspicuous by its absence was any survey of Dutch ex-pats, who are living in other countries, but adhering to the Dutch method. Does it even work abroad? How do their kids fare? The book is silent on this perspective.

There was some talk of stress. One the one hand we're told that the Dutch lifestyle avoids stress and this is a contributor to happiness, but then the authors turn right around and tell me that there's a special world in Dutch, Faalangst, which is exactly what it sounds like: fail angst. The very fact that such a concept exists and has a special word for it presupposes that there's stress and attendant measurement of it, which are the very things we're told don't exist! This evident hypocrisy was not an isolated incident.

One section of the book covers bullying, and Britain and the US are given a poor commentary here, yet a quick look online again reveals that this is not a fair picture. World Atlas doesn't show Britain or the US in the worst 10. Even in this older study more UK students (42%) said they were happier in school most of the time than on average in the rest of Europe (33%). Most of the bullying seemed to be tied to racism and religion, and nothing to do with pressure of school work. This study reports the Netherlands and the UK almost neck-and-neck with the US not far behind, so there appears not to be a huge discrepancy.

Google really screwed me over yesterday when I began writing this! I must have hit some oddball key combination while typing, and my entire blog edit screen went blank! I'd never encountered this before, nothing I did would bring it back, and my last save had a half-hour before because I was so focused on writing this! Google doesn't do backups or undo in its blogger environment.

More fool me for trusting Google, whose motto is "don't be evil"! Thanks Google. That's a half hour of my life I can't get back! I decided to quit for the night because I'd spent so long on this. The rest of my review, below, is more of a summary so I don't end up spending a large portion of yet another evening on this when I need to be doing other things!

So let's get going. On another tangent, the book delved into antibiotic use, and yes, the Netherlands does commendably have the lowest human antibiotic consumption rate in Europe, but what this book doesn't reveal is that between 2005 and 2009 The Netherlands also was among those nations with the highest sales of antibiotics for veterinary use of 10 European countries investigated! It's the antibiotic use in animals which is really the issue in the form of germs building resistance to the drugs, and which is becoming a chronic and dangerous problem, so once again we had a biased perspective which favored the Dutch.

Anecdotal stories of kids being too tied up with "building up their resumes" instead of playing outside that were related here neither described my childhood in England, nor that of my own kids' childhood here in the US. I'm guessing they don't represent a whole host of other kids either, judged from what I see in my neighborhood, so once again we had a personal perspective being generalized and applied as though everyone else was the same. It's not the case, and it's misleading.

At one point the authors gush about how Dutch moms never get depressed, but dutchdailynews.com reports that "The Netherlands, U.S. Have Highest Depression Rates in World"! Another web site, iamexpat.nl, agrees: "... new study has found that the Dutch have very high rates of depressive disorders compared to the rest of Europe." The nltimes.nl website agrees: "Eight percent of the Dutch population aged 12 years and older admitted to suffering from depression in 2014. That is more than 1 million people."

So once again we get a different view outside of the book to the one we got inside it, and the one inside both favors the Dutch and appears not to have been well-considered. The more of these instances I encountered, the less confidence I had that this book was being fair or was telling it how it really is!

One of the things mentioned more than once was the Dutch habit of making a "breakfast" out of chocolate sprinkles on a slice of bread and butter. That sounds yukky to me, but apparently it's quite popular; however, as dutchfood.about.com explains, it's not the only thing they have for breakfast and I think it's misleading to go on about it like it is.

This lack of a reliable and comprehensive coverage of the facts was disturbing to me, and I found it over and over again. For example, the chapter on PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) fails to mention how close most results are, giving a false impression. It does show that the Netherlands is in the lead (except in science, where the U.K. came ahead, but the book mentions only the ranking, without recognizing that the rankings can be misleading. Look for yourself, here.

In this chart, for reading, the Netherlands is placed 11th, the UK comes 27th, and the US a "shocking" 41st! But if you look at the actual scores, the Netherlands gets a 512, the UK a 492, and the US a 470. This is a less than a 10 percent difference. So yes, the Netherlands is ahead, and yes, the UK and the US need to do more, but the actual difference is smaller than we're led to believe when we're told only the rankings. This same mis-perception applies to reading, where Netherlands scored 503, the UK 498, and the US 497. That's a one percent difference, but to hear only the ranking, we learn that the Netherlands came fifteenth, while the UK and US were 22nd and 24th. That makes it sound so much worse and it's misleading. This also applies to the science scores, where there's only a two percent difference.

So yes, the authors made their point about the Netherlands having a decent education system, but need that have been done at the expense of unnecessarily dissing the US and the UK? No, it needn't, and worse than this is the studied ignoring of all those nations which appeared above the Netherlands in the scoring, such as for example, Norway, which scored well in PISA and also did well in the happiest kids ranking, as did Finland (except in science!), Germany, Switzerland, and Belgium to name five. None of these other countries come under the microscope in order to determine what it is they're doing right and whether or not it compares or contrasts with the Dutch system. Again, I found this lack of a wider perspective to be glaring and regrettable.

There was a chapter on discipline which showed a Dutch bias too: even as we're told Dutch kids are badly behaved (as in running around in restaurants, and so on), we're expected to accept that and not find any real fault with it. Again we're given no comparative examples except for one anecdote of quiet French kids on beach! These quiet kids were taken as representative of the entire French nation and contrasted with the Dutch kids who were exploring and so on.

For all we knew, the French kids had been exploring, and were tired and wanted to rest. Maybe they'd been to that beach many times and were bored. Maybe they'd been brought to the beach against their will and resented it because they'd rather be doing something else. The fact is that we don't know, and even if we did know, it was entirely wrong and completely unfair to make a comparison like that and generalize from it. These two chapters were really the final straw for me, and they lost whatever remaining goodwill I'd harbored for this book, because this type generalization was rife: taking a few stories, or an interview or two, or a personal opinion, and extrapolating it into a grand argument favoring the Dutch way.

In the final analysis, we have only a narrow viewpoint from two writers who are apparently quite comfortably-off as judged from the text (occupations, lifestyle, friends, etc.). One of the things they discuss is owning cargo bikes and tandem bikes which can cost several thousand dollars, but my point here is that their perspective is not necessarily representative of everyone, and I didn't see any serious effort to expand their viewpoint beyond their circle of friends and acquaintances or to seek out contrary points of view for the sake of presenting a balanced argument. It seemed like the only things they were reporting were those which upheld their preconceived conclusion, and they were downplaying or ignoring anything which might sabotage that apple cart.

Finally, I have to say a few words about the technical aspects of reading this book. The advance review copy, for which I thank the publisher, was available only as a PDF, and it felt to me like it was written for the print edition, with no thought given to reading it as an ebook. If you can read it on a tablet or a desktop or laptop, and see it pretty much full size, then it makes for a decent read.

I read most of it on my phone, because it was more convenient for me, but it made for a very annoying read! The screen on my phone is larger than most, but if I tried the read the book as single pages, the text was annoyingly small. I could turn the phone sideways and read the text in a larger format, but then I had to contend with sliding the page up and down to read all of it. This would not have been so bad had it not been for the tendency of the app (BlueFire Reader) to get confused. Often when I tried to slide the page down or up, the screen would switch to the previous page or to the next page, There didn't seem to be any reliable way to swipe the page up or down without triggering a page change and it really was annoying. In the end I put up with the tiny text and read it as single pages. Just FYI!

Here are one or two more brief notes that I missed yesterday(!), in this and the next two paragraphs. A paper on Sexually Transmitted Infection (STI) noted that "The incidence of STI-consultations and diagnoses increased substantially in recent years, both at GPs and STI centers" so again, not everything is as perfect as it might seem with Holland's child-rearing practices. A reason for this STI increase might be that Dutch do not employ condoms as frequently as some other countries in Europe, such as France, for instance. Maybe those French kids on the beach were soberly contemplating that?!

On this same sexual score, the incidence of teen pregnancy in Holland is almost the same as in Germany, and HIV infections and abortion rates are higher in the Netherlands than in Germany, so here we have another case of another country doing equally well, without a hint of recognition from the authors, or any hint of questioning whether the Germans do things the same, or differently, and what that means in either case. Again it's biased reporting.

There's a comment at one point on the wearing of school uniforms, which isn't the practice in Holland. The problem with this is once again that the authors don't look at the other side of that coin, either. School uniform is not just about identity and belonging, it's also about not being singled-out for one reason or another, and one of those reasons is that poor families, who cannot afford to dress their kids the way wealthier families can, do not stand out in an adverse way from everyone else who might be wearing designer clothing and the latest fashions otherwise. This is another example of where this book failed in not seeking out a broader sample base than merely the authors' own opinions, or the personal acquaintances of the authors.

So to conclude quickly, while I'm by no means trying to say that there's nothing we can learn from the Dutch, I have reiterate that this book failed to convince me that there's any more we can learn from them that smart and caring parents haven't been doing all along. Much of what's advocated here is simply common sense, and it's insulting to continually suggest that parents elsewhere, particularly in the UK and the US are not doing these things or are clueless about them.

Worse than this, though, is that their conclusion, grandly titled "Let's Start a Revolution" offered no way to start this revolution! Yes, individuals can adopt best practices, but a lot of what was discussed here was dependent upon the Dutch government, Dutch laws, Dutch culture, and so on. You can't pick that up and drop it into another country and expect it to be accepted or to work.

The authors' failure here, was in their offering absolutely no suggestions as to how other countries, even assuming they buy the authors' Dutch is best philosophy, could go about embracing the Dutch way, and if it's not possible, then what was the point of discussing all of those things? The book too often felt that it was much more interested criticizing British and American child-rearing than ever it was in trying to offer suggestions as to exactly how those societies might facilitate changes which could bring these supposed benefits of the Dutch way into those other countries, and for these reasons I cannot recommend this as a worthy read.